Friendship, rivalry and intimacy – anyone with a sister knows how complex the relationship is. Here, three writers analyse the impact this has had on their lives...
‘I was so defined by my big-sister status, I never let myself fail’
Daisy Buchanan, 30, has five sisters who are all in their twenties and are now scattered around the country
‘It doesn’t make sense for me to describe my siblings as “little” any more, yet that’s how I think of them.
‘I want to draw them all close to me as if I were protecting an armful of puppies. There are five in total. Beth (29), Gracie (27), Jane (25) and twins Maddy and Dotty (22). They are the only women I’d kill for, and the only women I sometimes want to kill.
‘At school, I struggled to make friends, so it was comforting to know that at home I had playmates – and I was always in charge. As the biggest, I could shout the loudest, make the rules and change them at will.
‘To be honest, I think I secretly believed I was the head of a benign dictatorship. I was constantly told that it was my job to “set a good example” for my sisters, which usually meant I was the first to do something. First to have a holy communion ceremony, the first to be allowed out into the village on my own, the first to take the entrance exam to big school.
‘I grew up believing I was the natural winner of the race, and was shocked when they started outpacing me. Even though I was first to take GCSEs and A-levels, I was horrified when they did theirs and got better grades. I had three failed driving tests to my name when Gracie passed first time. And then one day, when I was 27 and thinking about how broken- hearted I was, my mobile rang. It was Gracie. She was getting married.
‘Although I tried to sound delighted for her, I felt crushed. Gracie had overtaken me, and I might never catch up. But I knew I wasn’t behaving in a big sisterly way. She was loved because she is lovable. Being bossy and entitled is not lovable. Getting fixated on achieving certain life goals in a particular order isn’t either.
‘Last October, I got married and I’m coming around to the fact that it’s not my job to guide my sisters, teach them or lead the way. In the past, I was so defined by my big-sister status that I never gave myself a chance to make mistakes and deal with how it felt to fail.
‘I’ve learned to stop thinking of myself as “the eldest”. Today, I see myself in the same way I see my sisters – as individuals trying to make their own way in the world.’
‘“Love” doesn’t adequately describe what I share with Rose’
Lizzie Pook, 30, has an identical twin, Rose
‘I’ve never bought into the concept of “the one” – the idea that there’s a perfect man out there for me – but that’s probably because I already have what you might describe as a soulmate. Someone who senses what I’m about to say before I even say it; who knows what I’m thinking with just a downward glance of my eyes. But then, we did share a womb for nine months, jostling for space as we grew eyelashes and toenails together.
‘Yes, I’m an identical twin, but no, we’re not telepathic. My sister and I don’t feel each other’s pain and we’ve never swapped boyfriends for a laugh (just to clear that up). But put us within 50 metres of each other and we’ll have a fairly acute idea of how the other one is feeling.
‘The connection between twins is something only those with the same DNA profile as another human can understand. Ours began with a secret language as toddlers. As teenagers, it was an allegiance forged against our parents when they told us we couldn’t go to bars. As adults, it’s knowing there’s always someone to back us up. My sister is the one person who always finds me funny. The one person I don’t have to filter my dark thoughts for.
‘But we are not the same person. She’s fiery, I’m considered. She’s good at logistics, I’m a “free spirit”. As such, we’ve never been competitive. That’s not to say there are no downsides. Boyfriends certainly don’t get it – exes have found it impossible to concede they’ll never be the most important person in my life. People constantly make assumptions about us, too – that we must have the same opinions on everything, that we’re incapable of being away from each other, that we adore joint presents – “A decorative bowl for us both to share? How delightful.”
‘Feeling so connected to another person also means you bear their emotional burdens as well as your own. Some things have become too hard for us to discuss. Like the death of our father a decade ago. It might sound odd to a non-twin, but for us talking about our loss would be like magnifying the grief – a hall of mirrors effect so grotesque it’s easier to say nothing at all.
‘I love my family. I love my friends. I love my boyfriend. But the word “love” does not adequately describe what I share with my sister. As a twin, I feel like half of a whole. Some people might see that as sad, or suffocating, but for me, it’s a privilege. I know what it’s like to be fully understood and accepted. At all costs. Even if I am wrong. Not everyone is that lucky.’
‘My sister even picked a fight with me over Mum’s death bed’
Harriet Hamilton*, 37, has finally accepted that her sister Helena*, 42, will never be a real friend
‘Last month, I felt a genuine pang of despair when I realised that my big sister had unfriended me on Facebook. But after much reflection, I now realise I’m quite relieved to
be free from her.
‘No more second-guessing what innocuous status updates might offend her, or trying to hide what I’d been doing in case she got upset I hadn’t included her in my plans.
‘My big sister has always resented me. I am outgoing and open, she is private and withdrawn. Where I am impulsive and trusting, she is careful and considered. I grew up in her shadow and was defined by my differences from her. Teachers often said in a sad, resigned tone, “You’re nothing like your sister, are you?”
‘She clearly begrudged my arrival from the start, as it meant she was no longer the baby but the middle child (we also have an older brother). It wasn’t all bad – she once drove me to Boots to get the morning-after pill and nurtured me through several break-ups, sharing laughs, wine and tears. However, my overwhelming memories of our relationship are not especially positive. I wanted her to like me, but at best, she tolerated what I said for short periods before rolling her eyes and telling me I was boring or a show-off.
‘Growing up, I believed I must be everything she claimed I was –ostentatious and not very bright. However later on, in my twenties, I came to realise that her negative, anxious and paranoid view of life (she has fallen out with countless friends because she felt they were “looking down on her”) was beginning to seep into my consciousness. A self-styled victim, she has always believed she had it harder than anyone.
‘For years, I bit my lip to avoid upsetting her. The day after I had my first baby she asked if she could bring her new boyfriend (who I’d met twice) to see me when, vulnerable and bruised, it was the last thing I wanted. She also invited herself on holiday with us because she “needed a break”, to my partner’s annoyance. But I was too scared to tell her she was intruding.
‘Perhaps the defining moment was the week we lost our mother to cancer. I rushed up from London to see her in hospital only to find my sister was already there. All I wanted was to be alone with my frail mother for half an hour but my sister, who only lived 20 minutes away, and had been with her all day, insisted on staying and even picked an argument with me over something so trivial I can’t even remember what. I’ll never forgive her for the fact that the last memory I have of my mum is her attempting to mediate between the two of us as we argued over her death bed.
‘But now that I have a husband and family of my own, I’m more philosophical about our relationship. I’ve realised that I need to accept Helena for who she is because she’s never going to change. We do at least have a relationship of sorts and I’d rather have that than nothing at all. The funny thing is, now I’ve accepted we’re never going to be best friends on Facebook, or real life for that matter, we actually seem to be getting on better.’